E-mail: serious or sarcastic?

By HSC Staff Writer • Published: May 26th, 2006
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Your boss sends you an e-mail that says, “Don’t work too hard.”

That’s innocent enough. But it only takes a moment before the needle on the stress meter starts to flicker.

What did she mean by that?

Did she really think you are working hard? Or did she think you’re hardly working?

If you’re like most people, maybe you should just flip a coin rather than try to figure it out.

Because even if you’re certain that you know whether your boss was serious or sarcastic, the reality is people routinely misinterpret e-mails.

University of Chicago psychologists studied undergraduate students who e-mailed each other about subjects ranging from food to the weather.

Students who received the messages said they were about ninety percent certain they correctly gauged the tone of the authors. It turns out they were right only about half the time.

Likewise, the people who sent the messages largely predicted their partners would correctly interpret their tone.

But it turned out the message the authors “heard” had only a fifty-fifty chance of jibing with what the recipients would “hear.”

It shows how communication suffers without body language or voice inflections. It may also justify the existence of those exhaustingly cute “smileys” that show up in e-mails.

But for your own peace of mind, the next time you find yourself fretting over someone’s e-mail, give it the benefit of the doubt. Interpret what was said in the most positive way.

You’ll be right half the time.